How to boost your tech career with a sideways move

How to boost your tech career with a sideways move

Author: Travis O'Rourke, President, Hays Canada

You know that feeling: you’ve been in the same job for so long, you could probably do it in your sleep. Panic starts to set in and you start thinking you’ll probably be doing the same thing, day-in-day-out for the rest of your career.

Stop. It doesn’t have to be that way. Now is the time to take back control and consider your options, including whether a lateral move is a good idea. In our last blog, we spoke about the three different career paths that are typically open to developers. If you haven’t read that piece, then I recommend you bookmark this one, and read that first.

Understandably for some, spending years relentlessly climbing a steep career ladder, while actually spending less and less time coding isn’t appealing in the slightest. But it’s important to realise that reaching for the dizzy heights of CIO isn’t the only way you can progress your development career.

Having said that, many do wonder how they can move forward if they aren’t moving upward. The answer is simple – by exploring a sideways, or lateral career move. Working as a developer in the finance team and then moving to do a similar role in marketing, for example, increases your value to the organisation as you will learn how the departments connect and the ways in which they use technology.

So, if this sounds like this might be the right option for you, the below will help you clarify the decision in your mind, and importantly, provide advice on how you can put the wheels in motion.

Is a sideways move really right for you?

A lateral move – if done right – no longer puts your career on pause. In fact, quite the opposite can be true. Possible benefits include:

  • Improved promotion prospects: A lateral move demonstrates your value to a new department. By increasing your visibility across the organisation, it could secure you a managerial role in the future if, and when, you feel it is the right time to do so. The recent DNA of a CIO report identified the importance of working across different departments and industries for building technical and business acumen.
  • You’ll be able to get a better idea of which direction you want to take your career: This is particularly useful for those in the initial stages of their career. By experiencing different areas of expertise, you will limit the risk that you will be pigeon-holed further down the line.
  • You’ll be able to radically broaden your skillset: By making a sideways move, you’ll get more exposure to different technologies which could complement and future-proof your existing skillset. For example:
    • Data analysts will have worked with tools such as MapReduce, Hadoop and Cloudera, which are relevant for cloud engineers too
    • QA engineer and UX designer are complementary roles as both involve focusing on the user experience
    • Software developers and software testers will also have a good working knowledge of each other’s roles as these disciplines work closely together – and working with the testing department improves code writing (and vice versa).
  • You’ll be showcasing your commitment to your own development: you’ll be publicly demonstrating your willingness to learn and develop new skills (to both your existing and prospective employers), plus your commitment to your sector and organisation.
  • You’ll increase your employability: As a result, you’ll be broadening your skillsets, making you a more attractive proposition for both internal and external positions in the future.
  • You’ll get a fresh perspective: You’ll work with new people and see how different teams operate. This in turn will help you more easily see the bigger picture, making you more well-rounded, and thus more employable.

Nonetheless, you need to be aware of the perceived downsides of this kind of career move:

  • You’ll probably be paid the same salary: a lateral move isn’t usually accompanied by a major pay rise but do research the market value of your new proposed role as, in some cases, you could negotiate a rise.
  • There’s a chance you might fail: lateral moves are a risk. You may think the grass is greener in another department, only to discover later that you were better off in your previous position. But, this is a risk with any career shift, and your employer might be willing to let you return to your old role if things don’t work out.

I’d say that the benefits of making a sideways move definitely outweigh the negatives. However, before you make any kind of decision, it’s important to ensure you are making the move for the right reasons. A sideways move is by no means a quick fix.  We all know that, particularly if you’re desperately unhappy in your current role, it can be easy to make snap decisions – don’t fall into this trap.

Preparing to make the move

Now that you’ve decided that yes, you would like to explore a sideways move, you must ensure you are fully prepared to make the move.

Here are the next steps I would recommend you take:

  1. Research your desired role: It’s a good idea to discover as much as you can about your desired role before you pursue it. Research what you’ll be doing daily, the amount of training you’ll need to get up to speed, and the wider benefits the job will offer. Some roles may give you the opportunity to work from home or travel internationally. You may want to (discreetly) talk to colleagues working in a similar role to the one you seek to get an insider’s perspective on the realities of the job.
  2. Audit your current skillset: Global skills shortages are forcing employers to reassess the criteria by which they evaluate employees, which has encouraged workers to offer previously hidden talents as part of their skillset. Work out what transferrable skills you already have. If you are a data analyst who wants to become a data scientist, the most obvious transferable skills will be your abilities to solve problems and communicate, which are skills that most developers have in abundance.
  3. Proactively fill any skills gaps: Once you’ve audited your skills, you should have an idea which are missing. While you are waiting for the right lateral move to become available, take advantage of every learning opportunity to build your knowledge, and don’t rely on your employer and your usual work day for development and education. Go to events, participate in online forums, complete online tutorials and research your chosen topic thoroughly. A hackathon, for example, can be a great entry point into a new technical specialism to test your knowledge and expand your network. Your communication skills, problem-solving capabilities and technical knowledge are all desired attributes no matter what career you want to pursue.

Internal or external move?

Now, the next decision – should you try to move internally, within your current organisation, or look for opportunities elsewhere?

If you think an internal move might be the best option for you, approach your line manager for an open conversation about possible opportunities. Most managers should be receptive to your ideas on career progression. Ensure you convey to them that you want to stay with the company and progress your career using a lateral move. Explain how diversifying will have a positive impact on the organisation and remember to offer suggestions for the benefits your internal move could bring. As a first step, you could suggest that you shadow existing roles to determine which path you find most interesting.

If an internal sideways move isn’t possible, accept it is time to move on. Fortunately, there are a huge range of options for external lateral moves within development. One-third of developers want to work in a different or more specialised technical role in the next five years, according to the 2018 Stack Overflow Global Developer Hiring Landscape report.

A well thought out lateral move is a good thing

I hope this blog has gone some way to challenging misconceptions that a sideways career move is not a good idea.  The last message I’d like to leave you with is that this, as with all career decisions, should be properly thought out, and you should be confident you are making this move for the right reasons. If you are, and you are open in your discussions with your organisation, it will help to enhance your employability in the years ahead.

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